West Dorset lies in the heart of the Jurassic Coast, and offers a multitude of informative activities and entertaining experiences for all ages, interests and abilities. The area’s geology is well and truly Jurassic – muddy grey limestones that yield incredible fossilised treasure, and crumbly sandstones that produce towering golden cliffs.
- This stretch of the World Heritage Site begins with the seaside town of Lyme Regis, home to the legendary fossil hunter Mary Anning, and renowned in literary circles as the setting of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
- Next along is Charmouth, a small village with a worldwide reputation thanks to its incredible fossil-rich cliffs. A visit to the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (free entry) is an essential part of any Jurassic Coast visit.
- Further east is Stonebarrow and Golden Cap, a gorgeous National Trust site that boasts fabulous walking opportunities and stunning, panoramic views.
- The coastline continues through the rolling peaks and valleys of Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon and Eype, culminating in the charming harbour town of West Bay.
- The West Dorset section of the Jurassic Coast concludes with Chesil Beach, one of the most well-known barrier beaches in the world that was formed during the last Ice Age. This 18-mile stretch of coastline includes Hive Beach, with its distinctive golden cliffs.
Lyme Regis packs a hefty punch for a small seaside town; where to start with its historical significance?
How about 195 million years ago, when what is now the town was submerged in warm tropical seas around the equator, and patrolled by legions of ammonites, ichthyosaurs and pliosaurs. Many of these specimens are now on show in fossilised form at Lyme Regis Museum, as well as forming part of major collections worldwide, including at the Natural History Museum in London.
Jump forward to medieval times, and the earliest record of Lyme Regis’ Cobb from 1328. In the centuries since it has withstood an untold amounts of storms, vigilantly protecting the town.
1799 saw the birth of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’ most famous historical resident and a major figure in the history of science. Her stellar fossil collecting career began while she was still a girl, uncovering the first ever ichthyosaur in 1811. Find out more about Mary at Lyme Regis Museum.
The last two centuries have seen the town featured in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.
Lyme has recently starred as the filming location for the upcoming Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, and focusing on the life of Mary Anning.
Mind-boggling new discoveries are frequently made here, with many of them ending up on display at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. The centre is free to enter and offers frequent guided fossil hunting tours with its expert wardens – make sure to book in advance as they are very popular!
If you’re headed to the beach here, make sure to pick up a £2 copy of Tide Times from all good local outlets, or check online.
If you’re on the beach during busy periods such as school holidays, you may also run into Stuart Godman, our friendly Fossil Warden – if you see him, do say hello!
Golden Cap rises majestically along the Jurassic Coast, its peak reaching 190 metres – the highest point on England’s south coast.
The distinctive golden rock layers at its crest belong to a geological layer known as the Upper Greensand, which was laid down much later than the darker layers of rock below it.
One of the best ways to take in the peak is from the sea. Lyme Bay RIB Charter operate out of West Bay, and their breezy “West Bay Blast” ride offers fantastic views of the summit.
For those who prefer to explore on foot, Golden Cap makes for a great walking challenge. Start from Seatown, (accessed via the A35 at Chideock or from the coast path) make your way up, take in the views, then head back down for some well-deserved refreshment at The Anchor Inn.
West Bay is a historic harbour town that once served as a thriving hub of trade for Bridport’s rope and net industry.
These days it bustles with visitors and locals alike, who come here to enjoy its array of quality food and drink options, and to venture to the end of its pier for a look back at its famous golden cliffs.
The pier at West Bay offers one of the best geological perspectives across the whole Jurassic Coast. As you cast your eye across 180 degrees, you can take in Portland and Chesil Beach to one side, and Lyme Regis, Beer and beyond to the other.
Note the enormous variations in the colour and character of the rocks across these few scant miles – this is the clue to understanding why the Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site.
You won’t find fossils on the beach here; your best bet is to head to Bridport Museum, where 170 million year-old fossilised treasures are on display, the last remaining remnants of what was once a warm tropical sea.
Hive Beach, nestled in the picturesque Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, is renowned for its beautiful golden cliffs and beachside café.
Hive Beach is a perfect location for a beach picnic – if doing so, please stay safe and away from the bottom of the cliffs here, which are prone to rockfalls.
The beach and car park here also make an ideal starting point for a short, gentle walk to neighbouring Cogden Beach or West Bay via the South West Coast Path.
Hive Beach Cafe is situated atop the beach’s shingle, and is a west Dorset institution – enjoying a warming cup of coffee here is a Jurassic Coast must-do.
Hive Beach is also home to the annual Spring Tide Food Festival – hosted by the National Trust, and well worth a visit for its selection of delectable local produce.
Chesil Beach is a wild and elemental place, where nature is in command. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here to discover!
The beaches at Hive, Cogden and West Bexington are all worth exploring. At Chesil Beach’s eastern end, a trip on the Fleet Explorer glass-bottom boat is well worth a look. Book your tickets at the Chesil Beach Centre.